Saturday, February 26, 2011



After awarding two films in row that almost completely ignored the war, the Academy turned around in a big way, giving the award to what would be remembered as the ultimate story of postwar America, William Wyler's THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.   "Every family in America is a part of this story!"  producer Samuel Goldwyn announced, and nearly all of them would see it, as it went on to be an enormous commercial success delivering  over ten million dollars in box office returns on a two million dollar budget.  And while it may have been about a very specific time and place, it has endured as a moving, powerful snapshot of American history, and also as a cinematic thank you note to the brave men who risked life and limb in the war, very much in the spirit of Tom Brokaw's book, THE GREATEST GENERATION.
Wyler was the perfect director for the material, given that, after directing MRS MINIVER, 1942's  best picture winner, he enlisted in the air force, where he shot documentary war films.   Right away, Wyler made the right decision in hiring cinematographer Gregg Toland to photograph the film, as he utilized the same excellent deep focus photography he used in CITIZEN KANE to make the film's simple small town settings (bars, stores, apartments) look beautiful.
The film opens with three GI's returning to the same (fictional) mid western town, Boone City, each clearly representing  an archetype of the kind of Soldiers that were then returning home.  They are Al Stephenson (Fredric March), a successful middle aged banker, Fred Derry(Dana Andrews), who was just a soda jerk before the war, and who is returning to the wife (Virginia Mayo) that he knew for less than a month before he left.  Finally there is Homer Parrish(Harold Russell, who really was handicapped), a young navy veteran who lost his arms in the war and uses prosthetic limbs now.  Each one of them has a big, moving homecoming scene, and it is to Wyler's credit that he finds a way to make each one different and play on different emotions (Homer, for example, is tentative in his arrival, nervous about how his new arms will appear to his family, while Al is far more excited).  There's also an amusing moment where Fred slowly walks towards his parents shabby home as a train rushes by behind him, and we realize that he literally is from the wrong side of the tracks.

Harold Russell, Fredric March, Dana Andrews

Inevitably the three men have trouble adjusting: Al is surprised to discover that his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and two children Peggy and Rob (Teresa Wright and Micheal Hall) have become so independent without him.  And at his work, he butts heads with his boss (Ray Collins) when he demands that the bank make loans to poor GIs without collateral.  Meanwhile Fred is discovering that his pretty wife Marie barely made contact with his parents while he was gone, and that she expects to lead a high life that he can't possibly afford as he struggles to find work, his training as a bomber giving him no workable skills in the job market. He also finds himself drawn to Al's daughter Peggy, who resolves to break up his unhappy marriage.  And, finally, Homer feels his friends and family see him as some kind of freak because of his arms, so he avoids them, including his fiancee Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) and he spends most of his time drinking at the bar owned by his uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmicheal).

Each one of these stories is well handled, and the entire cast is wonderful;  one can really sense that they all realized that this was a special and important movie.  It is also a tribute to Sherwood's script that the story of returning GIs also gives its female stars a chance to shine: Myrna Loy, best known today for starring opposite William Powell in the THIN MAN films, (and, being the best known performer in the cast, gets star billing here) is more than just a supportive and loving wife; she also brings a wry humor to the scenes where she has to deal with her husband's drunken behavior, and she gives a wonderful speech to her husband and daughter about the difficulties of a long term marriage ("How many times have you said you were sick and tired of me; that we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?" ).   Teresa Wright, along with having excellent romantic chemistry with Dana Andrews, brings real intelligence and determination to her role as Peggy; she makes us see that her love for him is not just some silly infatuation, but that it is in the best interest for both of them.  And even Virginia Mayo, in the seemingly thankless role of the golddigging, unfaithful Marie has enough human moments to show that she's as disappointed in her quick decision to marry as her husband is. 
There are many great moments:  I love Al's speech about how his bank needs to do more about helping people, or when Fred walks through a line of decaying planes and flashes back to his days as a bomber.  But it is in the story of Harold Russell's Homer that the film really soars.  Originally, his character was going to suffer from shell shock and be prone to fits,  but when Wyler recalled seeing Russell in a documentary about handicapped soldiers, he hired him to, more or less, play himself in the film.  Although Russell's  acting is, at times,  a bit rough around the edges, it was an inspired choice by Wyler, as Homer becomes the heart and soul of the film.(And Russell would become the only actor to win two Oscars for the same role, one for Best Supporting Actor, and the other a special inspirational award)  The crucial moment for his character comes when Wilma confronts him and asks to know why he's avoiding her; he invites her to his bedroom so she can see for herself how hard it is for him to remove his arms every night and how helpless he is while lying down in bed.  This is a truly striking moment because it is the first (and only) time in the film when we see him without his arms, and, in showing Russell's real handicap and the difficulties it causes him, it becomes one of the few times in a fiction film where the wall between reality and made up story is shattered. It also ranks as one of the most romantic moments in movie history, as the sweet Wilma resolves to love him despite his handicap, saying, "All I know is, I was in love with you when you left and I'm in love with you now. Other things may have changed but that hasn't."

Cathy O'Donnell and Harold Russell

It is reported that Wyler originally intended to cut the film's running time, but when preview audiences responded so well to it, he just released it at its original three hours.   I think it was the right decision, as the film rarely lags, and the extended time reveals the real changes the characters go through, and let's us get to know them, so that we understand their motivations (Although I could have done without some of Al's drunken behavior).  Wyler also finds many moments of humor,  like a crowded dance scene in a night club, or Butch's cynical line about  the next war (" Then none of us have to worry because we'll all be blown to bits the first day. So cheer up, huh!".  )  All in all, this is a big, bold film clearly made with lots of heart and emotion, that, despite the main characters troubles,  looks forward to their future (and the future of America itself) with optimism and hope.  It's truly a classic.


This becomes a tough call to make; while it is obvious that I adore this film,  another film was released that year that has gone on to become one of the most popular holiday movies ever,(although it was a box office disappointment at the time)  Frank Capra's marvelous IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  Also, NOTORIOUS, Alfred Hitchcock's most romantic movie, came out that year,  and it is also excellent.  So I won't argue with the Academy's choice, but a three way tie might have been nice!